Book Review: Bobby Jones on Golf

When Jones won the U.S. Amateur at Merion in 1930, he
When Jones won the U.S. Am in 1930, he captured golf’s Grand Slam.

Bobby Jones is probably best-known for co-founding The Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. But what he should probably be most known for is the Grand Slam he won in 1930, something no one had equaled before and no one has accomplished since. That year, Jones won the open and amateur championships of both Great Britain and the United States.

Interesting was not the word one would have used to describe Jones. It simply wouldn’t have gone far enough. Jones studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, earned a degree in English Lit from Harvard just because he could, dabbled in real estate because he felt like it, and then enrolled at Emory Law School in Atlanta. Midway through his 2nd year, he decided to take the state bar exams, passed them, and quit school to practice law.

There was next to no time for golf, and Jones averaged no more than three months a year playing in and going to and from tournaments and championships. He hardly ever practiced. Yet the man simply kept winning. In total, he won 13 national championships, and in the eight years preceding his shockingly early retirement from formal competition at the age of just 28, won a whopping 62% of the national championships he entered in Great Britain and the U.S., at a time when the only way to cross the Atlantic Ocean was by boat.

Call it fortuitous if you want, but at his golfing peak from 1927 until 1935, Jones was also under contract to write a column twice a week for the Bell Syndicate. The columns added-up to five average-length novels. Add to the man’s proficiency of his sport, real estate, and law, a mastery of the English language. It is we who are the lucky beneficiaries of being able to ride in the passenger seat to history as Jones stormed from the stuff of golfing lore to golfing legend and documented his journey every step of the way.

Then, in 1966, with the help of author Charles Price, Jones dissected every word he had written, “until he was sure that 30 years had not dimmed what he had truly meant to say.” What resulted was Bobby Jones on Golf, a book Harvey Penick, one of the greatest golf instructors of all time, once told two-time Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw was “the finest book of golf instruction for all.”

Crenshaw later described it as containing “Jones’ own golfing genius as well as (Stewart) Maiden’s (Jones’ teacher), combined with miles and miles of common sense and Jones’ beautiful command of the English language.”

Jones certainly put his Harvard degree to good use. As Price writes, Bobby Jones on Golf, “is not meant to be a book to be read at one sitting – if you can help it.” It’s written in heavy English. Think strawberries and cream. I read a few pages at a time over a period of several months – definitely in more than one sitting.

There is no audio book of the text, but you can almost hear Jones narrating in his famous southern drawl while you’re reading it. You can also see and hear Jones in a series of 12, one-reel golf instructional motion pictures called How I Play Golf. Jones signed a contract to do the series in 1930, just two months after his victory in the U.S. Amateur at Marion that capped off his winning the Grand Slam. The series remains a timeless classic. Here’s No. 3, The Niblick (9-iron):

 

 

Jones’ words drip off the pages of Bobby Jones on Golf like a syrupy-sweet mint julep in the month of May when he writes, “In any case, such an expression would only be one man’s opinion on a question that necessarily is so close as to require the splitting of a hair.”

Or how about this phrasing on feel: “The player cannot see himself. He, therefore, must play and adjust his stroke wholly by feel, and unfortunately no two sensibilities react in precisely the same way to like influences.” Nobody writes like that anymore! More importantly, from a teaching standpoint, how do you get someone to feel the golf swing? In the modern world of email, Facebook, and Twitter, Bobby Jones on Golf might as well be written in Olde English, with an “e” after old. My how the language has changed in the 50 years since this book was published! Now, it’s all chopped up and shortened in favor of character efficiency over verbosity.

Granted, some of Jones’ instructional philosophies have become outdated simply because of technological advancements, but that didn’t keep me from taking ten pages of typewritten notes on his thoughts. Jones’ fundamentals still ring true. In fact, not much has changed since Scotland’s John Reid first brought golf from Dunfermline to Yonkers back in 1888. Here are a few of my favorite Jones-isms:

* On the grip: “A correct grip is a fundamental necessity in the golf swing. Most should alter the position of one hand or the other, or of both, but the change should be permanent and no merely as a temporary corrective. After altering his grip until it is correct and comfortable, let him resolve never to change it.” (p. 6)

* On which hand dominates the swing: “To my mind, the right hand is absolutely useless, except as a steadying factor, throughout the entire backswing, and nearly half of the downstroke, or hitting stroke. Its first real use comes when it assumes command for the actual delivery of the blow.” (p. 119)

Jones wrote that in order to play well, the player must have the "feel" of the proper stroke.
Jones wrote that in order to play well, the player must “feel” the proper stroke.

* On competitive pressure: “One always feels that he is running from something without knowing exactly what nor where it is… The best competitive golfers are, I think, the distrustful and timorous kind, who are always expecting something terrible to happen – pessimistic fellows who are quite certain when they come upon the green that the ball farthest from the hole is theirs.” (p. 200)

Bobby Jones on Golf is a great read if only for a chance to get inside the mind of the man who wrote it and a glimpse of greatness. Jones touches on just about every aspect of the game, including course design.

Toward the end of the book, Jones seems to lament the fact that the game has changed from the one he was more familiar with when he writes, “In many respects, golf has become an easier game; greenskeeping methods have progressed; hybrid grasses more suitable for golf courses have been developed; there is a more widespread use of artificial water; golf course designers have constructed many fine new courses, and modernized some of our old favorites. Resulting from all these influences, we have better fairways, more uniform and reliable putting surfaces, and courses that are generally more interesting to play.”

While this sounds more like progress to me, I can understand Jones’ desire to get back to the good ol’ days and the way things used to be. At the end of the day, Bobby Jones on Golf is wonderful trip down memory lane, a look at years and tournaments past, and a rare insight into what made one of the greatest golfers and one of the greatest men of all time truly great.

Next On the Shelf
Every Shot Must Have a Purpose by Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott. They teach out of Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale, and their program is called VISION54. Nilsson coached the Swedish National Golf Team and was Annika Sorenstam’s coach when she was dominating the LPGA Tour in the early to mid-2000s. This was our textbook in Golf Performance Enhancement (GPE) with PGA Professional Gary Balliet during our 2nd semester at the Golf Academy. We invited Nilsson and Marriott to come out and speak to our class. I think it’s time to go through it and type up some notes.

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